Decoding Da Vinci: 'The Lady with an Ermine'

National Gallery curator Per Rumberg reveals the secrets behind 'The Lady with an Ermine'

To celebrate The National Gallery's exhibition, ‘Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ (Nov 9-Feb 5 2012) we have invited curator Per Rumberg to reveal some of the secrets behind two pictures in the show. Cecilia Gallerani (1473-1536) was the teenage mistress of Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), Duke of Milan. She was renowned not only for her beauty – masterfully conveyed by her twisting pose and nuanced expression – but also for her wit and poetry. The identification of Cecilia Gallerani has sometimes been challenged, but her identity was confirmed when it was realised that the first two syllables of her surname match the Greek word for weasel – and ermine: γαλέη (galée). Follow Rumberg's trail through the hidden details of the painting.

© Princes Czartoryski Foundation

1: Ermine

The animal in Cecilia’s arm (though depicted slightly too large) is an ermine, a stoat in winter fur, actually evolved from life studies Leonardo made of a dog’s paw and a bear’s head. It may have been included for a number of reasons, because in addition to being a pun on Cecilia’s surname, the ermine was also a well-known symbol of purity and moderation at the time and, according to popular belief, an animal that protected pregnant women (in 1489/90, Cecilia was pregnant by her lover, Ludovico Sforza). What is more, the ermine may also be an allusion to Ludovico himself, who had been awarded the order of the Ermine by the King of Naples and, as a result, was also known as l’Ermellino.

2: Hair

Cecilia’s sleek, dark hair is divided by a centre parting, arranged into two heavy swathes falling over the cheeks, and brought together in a long braid tightly bound in a cloth casing. The head is further adorned with a small, expensive cap, a thin black fillet running across the forehead and holding in place a transparent veil whose scalloped edge is at the level of Cecilia’s eyebrows. Her hair is covered by a second veil, the black silk net closely wrapped around the head. Leonardo’s fingerprints can actually be found just below, on the face of Cecilia, as well as on the head of the ermine.

3: Dress

Cecilia wears a ‘Spanish’ style of dress that became fashionable after the marriage in 1489 of the granddaughter of the King of Naples, Isabella of Aragon, to Gian Galeazzo Sforza. Her left shoulder is covered by an asymmetric silk sbernia, a mantle with an opening for one arm. Cecilia’s string of ostentatiously modest black beads is probably costly jet, worn to set off her pale skin.

4: Inscription

The inscription in the top left – ‘LA BELE FERONIERE / LEONARD DAWINCI’ – is not original but was added later, probably during the nineteenth century. Like Leonardo’s so-called ‘Belle Ferronnière’ at the Louvre, the sitter has been erroneously identified as ‘la belle Ferronnière’, mistress of François I of France.